ICYMI: Sullivan Presses Senior Defense Nominees on Alaska Priorities

Esper and Milley to be voted on for confirmation by the Senate this week

WASHINGTON, DC – In recent hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) pressed Secretary Mark T. Esper, President Trump’s nominee to be secretary of defense, and General Mark A. Milley, the President’s nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for critical commitments on defense priorities for Alaska, including the basing of the KC-46 and responding to strategic competition in the Arctic. Both Esper and Milley will soon be voted on for confirmation in the Senate. 

Strategic Competition in the Arctic: 

Continuing to emphasize the strategic importance of the Arctic, Senator Sullivan pressed Secretary Esper on Russia’s Arctic buildup, “America's strategic and military interest in the Arctic,” and the need for a Strategic Arctic Port. Secretary Esper committed to giving these issues his personal attention. 

Following the hearing – in response to a question for the record, Secretary Esper stated: 

“The Arctic is strategic terrain for the United States. The region has significant economic opportunity, and must remain free and open. It is also growing more complicated as strategic competitors – Russia and, increasingly, China – seek to enhance their position in the region. It is critical that the Arctic remain a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended, and nations work together to address challenges.” 

During General Milley’s hearing, Senator Sullivan alluded to increasing news coverage of security issues within the Arctic.  

“There's almost daily headlines [about the Arctic and] just in the last three months, there's been several articles about the expanding Russian and China influence in the Arctic,” said Senator Sullivan. ‘In today's Defense One, Admiral Foggo put [out] an article about the Russian buildup [of] ports and airfields. Can I get your commitment, if confirmed, to work with us to make sure we're not lacking from a strategic military perspective in the Arctic?” 

General Milley gave his commitment and, in a follow-up response to the hearing, stated: 

“The Arctic is of strategic importance to the United States, and if conditions continue to change that allow greater access to the Arctic, competition for that access is likely to increase. Access to new trade routes, natural resources, and potential military basing options are factors we must consider.  From my current perspective, we are currently lacking sufficient icebreaking capability, which is a mission set that falls underneath the U.S. Coast Guard and not DoD. Additionally, an Arctic port that can handle U.S. Navy ships may be needed.  [Additionally], U.S. maritime forces should be appropriately manned, trained, and equipped to project power anywhere in the world’s oceans. This requirement should not be limited by geography and includes the Arctic.” 

KC-46 Basing: 

During both confirmation hearings, Senator Sullivan pressed Secretary Esper and General Milley on the OCONUS (Outside Continental United States) strategic basing of the KC-46 air refueling tanker.  

“The Air Force is evaluating its OCONUS locations and deployments of KC-46s. Alaska has 50-year-old tankers up there. What kind of strategic message would we send our potential adversaries, like Russia, like China, like North Korea, where supersonic fighters can get to these places from Alaska within just a few hours, if we were collocate over a hundred fifth-generation fighters with KC-46 tankers in such a strategic area?” Senator Sullivan asked Secretary Esper.   

In response, Esper stated that such colocation would provide “extreme strategic reach.” 

In his questions to General Milley, Senator Sullivan pushed for the general’s commitment on the strategic basing of the KC-46 and for his commitment to “…look at what I think is a very obvious place to put new KC-46 [tanker aircraft], the place that’s the most strategic place in the world with one hundred fifth-generation fighters – that would be Eielson Air Force Base.”  

General Milley gave his commitment and then elaborated on his answer in a follow-up response, stating that collocating fifth-generation fighters and KC-46 tankers in a place like Alaska would “send a strong strategic message of deterrence…[and] such efforts may change our competitors’ approach to challenging the existing globally-accepted norms.” 

In the Senate-passed version of the FY 2020 NDAA, Senator Sullivan secured provisions on both the Arctic and the KC-46. 

  • KC-46A Basing: Requires the Air Force to report on likely locations for basing the KC-46 outside of the continental United States. The report must take into account factors favorable to Alaska, such as strategic location, ample training opportunities, sufficient airfield space, existing infrastructure, and minimal construction costs. Additionally, the provision restricts the secretary of the Air Force’s access to funds until the report is complete.
  • Strategic Arctic Port Designation: Requires the Department of Defense to designate a site or sites for a Strategic Arctic Port. As the importance of the region grows, ensuring U.S. naval access and presence in the Arctic is critical. Additionally, this designation aims to create the strategic imperative for the United States to invest in a port or ports along Alaska’s coast that are deep enough to accommodate our national security needs. 
  • Arctic Strategy Implementation Plan: Requires the secretary of defense and service secretaries to report on how they will implement the Department of Defense’s (DOD) 2019 Arctic Strategy to defend the homeland, preserve freedom of the seas, and develop Arctic infrastructure and capabilities.
  • DOD Official for the Arctic: Urges the secretary of defense to designate an existing deputy assistant secretary of defense as the person within DOD to have the primary responsibility for overseeing military policy in the Arctic.

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